Local colleges, universities issue partial refunds amid COVID-19 closure

Brian Pedersen//March 30, 2020

Local colleges, universities issue partial refunds amid COVID-19 closure

Brian Pedersen//March 30, 2020

Lehigh University in Bethlehem is among those higher education institutions offering partial refunds because of COVID-19-related closures. (PHOTO/SUBMITTED CHRISTA NEU/LEHIGH UNIVERSITY) –

After one local college announced it would close its campus because of COVID-19, others quickly followed suit.

It was the beginning of the local higher education response to the rising concerns over the virus that sent students across the state out of their dorms and classrooms and into online instruction for the remainder of the spring semester.

The move led many students and families to wonder if they would get some type of refund for losing access to housing, dining services and other amenities they already paid for.

So far, it’s a mixed bag, with most offering partial refunds of some amenities, but not tuition.

Kutztown University is offering partial refunds based on guidance it received from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, according to the university’s office of student accounts. The university calculated a 50% refund of selected fees for the current semester that it would send to students the week of April 6.

The university is refunding those fees that are no longer available to students because its face-to-face operations have closed, and for the majority of students, residence halls have closed.

However, the university is not refunding tuition, as full tuition costs will remain in place, based on a 50% face-to-face and 50% online ratio. The change in instruction does not meet the distance education requirement of 80% online or more, the university’s office said.

“The financial impact of refunds will be significant for the university,” said Matt Santos, vice president of University Relations at Kutztown University, in a statement. “We plan to issue refunds for 50% of the spring semester fees for housing, dining, and select auxiliary services. This equates to about $9.5 million in lost revenue.”

That means the university will have to dip into its cash reserves.

Because of the timing of the COVID-19 virus and resulting campus shutdown of these operations, the university won’t be able to reduce its expenses at the same rate of the revenue losses, Santos said. The university will need to use cash reserves, previously designated for deferred maintenance and building renovations, in order to fill the anticipated gap.

As the university asked students to move out, they’ve vacated most of the residence halls, he added. After letting the halls sit vacant for a few days, the university will deep clean them in preparation for their next use.

“We host a significant number of overnight campus and conferences during the summer, and at this time, there is no change to the summer schedule,” Santos said.

Lafayette College in Easton is working on a process to prorate room and board fees where appropriate and hopes to have the details worked out in early April, said Scott Morse, senior director of communications at Lafayette College, in a statement.

Alvernia University in Reading will seek state and/or federal reimbursement for students if funds become available, said Glynis Fitzgerald, senior vice president and provost, and John McCloskey, senior vice president and chief of staff.

In a statement, they said they would continuously monitor the situation.

According to its website, Lehigh University in Bethlehem is offering partial refunds for housing, dining and parking services on a prorated basis for undergraduate students who are not parking on campus, living in residence halls or using meal plans. Undergraduate students will have the ability to request a refund or apply the credit to future bills. Refunds do not apply to off-campus rentals or facilities that the university does not own or operate, such as SouthSide Commons.

The university began online instruction on March 16 and began prorating the refunds from that time, said Patricia Johnson, vice president of finance and administration at Lehigh University.

The university will have some cost savings on cleaning costs and general maintenance costs since many buildings on campus are empty, she said.

“They are not big savings,” Johnson said.

Utilities have to be kept on in the buildings, but other elements, such as air conditioning, can be turned off.

She said it is too early to determine what the possible financial impact to the university would be.

The university is not refunding tuition because it is offering online instruction.

“We placed some resources and provided training to faculty to use Zoom because many of them had never used it before,” Johnson said.

Overall, she said the university staff and faculty appear to be adjusting very well, noting the university converted to online instruction within a week.

“Some of our professors seem engaged, thinking about different ways of teaching,” Johnson said.

The university could delay graduation, currently set for May 18. Potentially, the university may push that date to August, she said.

Meanwhile, in a message to students at East Stroudsburg University, Kenneth Long, vice president of administration and finance said the university would issue pro-rated reductions of housing, dining, general, and parking and transportation charges on students’ accounts during the week of March 29.

The university is prorating the refunds based on the number of days it would not provide these services, as of the last day of ESU’s original spring break, March 13, estimated at 50%.